During congressional debates regarding Venezuela in May, as the White House considered a military response to the country's continuing crisis, Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young of Indiana stated, "I think that it is the responsibility of the administration to explain their thinking as it relates to any plans to deploy U.S. forces to Venezuela." Todd then asked several pertinent questions: "What would our military's mission be in Venezuela? Would it be a stabilization mission or a humanitarian mission or some other sort of mission? Would we be seeking regime change? What would success look like militarily and then in the wake of military action?"
While some recent news reports have stirred talk that U.S. President Donald Trump has lost interest in Venezuela, Todd's understanding of what questions to ask reflects a good understanding of the political and logistical challenges any occupying force faces. But he could have added another question: How will the majority of Venezuelans respond to an invasion by a foreign power? This seems to be an extremely important line of inquiry.
Venezuelan Anti-Americanism on Display, May 1958
There are many clues in the historical record on the likely Venezuelan response to any U.S. military action, with one of the most important relating to the anti-Americanism deeply embedded in Venezuelan political culture.
A shining example stands out in Vice President Richard Nixon's visit to Venezuela in May 1958. As he prepared for a presidential run in 1960, Nixon scheduled a "goodwill" trip to South America to burnish his foreign policy credentials while demonstrating "that spokespersons for democracy and capitalism had valid viewpoints that were reasonable and defensible in the marketplace of ideas."
The trip started uneventfully as Nixon visited several countries including Argentina and Bolivia. Ultimately, he faced protests in Peru where Nixon jumped on the trunk of his limousine and assumed a prizefighter's stance, yelling, "You are cowards, you are afraid of the truth!"
But those were nothing compared to what unfolded in Caracas, Venezuela. There, a deep reservoir of anti-Americanism existed dating back to the early 20th century and President Theodore Roosevelt calling Venezuelan President Cipriano Castro an "unspeakable villainous monkey" and reserving the right to intervene if Castro or others misbehaved contrary to American expectations (the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine).
Things started badly for Nixon. When he arrived in Caracas on May 13, protesters greeted him at the airport. Many Venezuelans, especially those on the left, were angry at the Eisenhower administration for providing significant military and economic assistance to the brutal dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez. President Dwight Eisenhower even awarded Perez Jimenez a Legion of Merit in 1954. They also resented the powerful American corporations, especially the oil companies, that often discriminated against Venezuelans in wages and provided poor working conditions. While having massive oil reserves, many Venezuelans lived in poverty, and nationalists often blamed the foreign oil companies for many of the country's problems.
In January 1958, a few months before Nixon's visit, the Venezuelans overthrew Perez Jimenez, who fled to Miami along with a chunk of the national treasury.
At the Caracas airport, Nixon and his wife, Pat, exited their plane and then stopped under an overhang when the Venezuelan national anthem started playing. Protesters yelled insults and pelted them with garbage and spit tobacco on them, staining Pat's red dress brown. As soon as the anthem stopped, the Secret Service quickly escorted the Nixons to a limousine for the long trip to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Caracas. But as they sped down the highway, the traffic suddenly slowed. Then, an angry mob appeared.
The protesters carried pipes and clubs and began bashing the official vehicle's windows while others threw rocks. The Venezuelan police just watched as the rioters attacked, shards of glass dislodging and striking members of Nixon's entourage inside their vehicles. At one point, Nixon's protective detail drew their guns, but Nixon restrained them fearful of inciting an international incident.
Finally, after some tense minutes, the motorcade escaped the tumult and sped toward the embassy.
The attack on Nixon in 1958 demonstrated the deep reservoir of resentment toward the United States that has existed for more than a century, and which remains a constant in Latin America.
While some Americans blamed the event on communist agitators, many recognized that the attack occurred because of the anti-Americanism that had swept Latin America, especially in response to U.S. interventions of the 20th century, Washington's support for dictatorships and the rise of powerful American corporations that nationalists attacked for siphoning off the region's wealth.
A few days later, Nixon left Caracas under the protection of the Venezuelan ruling junta, but not after being further embarrassed when it was leaked that the White House had created a plan to use U.S. Marines and paratroopers to extricate Nixon in an operation code-named "Poor Richard."
Ultimately, this episode demonstrates the deep reservoir of resentment toward the United States that has existed for more than a century, and that Fidel Castro tapped into in Cuba a year later. It remains a constant in the region.
Continuities in Modern Venezuela
In Venezuela, the anti-Americanism highlighted by the attack on Nixon in 1958 has been stoked for years, primarily by the political left, with denunciations of foreign oil companies, especially American ones. This was highlighted by Venezuela joining OPEC in 1974 where its leaders actively collaborated to raise prices and control the flow of oil as it sought to control subsoil resources and create economic sustainability.
More recently, Venezuela's anti-Americanism became more visible with the rise of Hugo Chavez in 1998. Chavez, who regularly criticized U.S. oil companies and Washington for interfering in Latin America, raised royalties on petroleum and funneled that money into social programs that won him popular support, especially among the poor. In April 2002, a thwarted coup by Chavez's opponents led to renewed claims of U.S. interference. Chavez heightened existing anti-Americanism by calling the United States a "democracy of bombs" and pushing OPEC to reduce production, which caused higher fuel prices in the United States.
The rhetoric and actions only escalated after Nicolas Maduro took over in 2013. Tensions intensified with the election of President Donald Trump, culminating in the ongoing crisis, including the failed uprising in April by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Ironically, many American leaders appeared surprised that Guaido's attempt to rally the people and military to his side flopped. They could not understand why so many people took to the streets to support Maduro and that the military remained loyal.
A major reason, albeit not the only one, remains the deep anti-American current that still runs through Venezuela. It has been many years in the making, as demonstrated by the Nixon episode, and it remains a potent force. With Maduro still entrenched in power and Guaido's effectiveness in question, The Washington Post and others have reported recently that Trump had lost patience and interest in Venezuela, prompting Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and others to emphasize that Trump remains as committed to seeing Maduro out of power as ever. Whatever the case may be, Todd's astute questioning from those May debates remains relevant. The cavernous reservoir of anti-Americanism should factor into determining any course of U.S. military action in Venezuela. It should dissuade anyone from thinking that U.S. troops will be greeted as liberators by many Venezuelans.
Instead, it would provoke widespread violent and nonviolent resistance, much like that encountered in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Military intervention likely would destabilize the entire region, not just Venezuela, with significant short- and long-term consequences for the United States.